Mum's the word

David Mackenzie's tale of a teenage obsessive shows a touch of genius

<strong>Hallam Foe (18)</str

Summer is usually a time of cinematic conservatism, so it's only proper that its end should be marked by two new releases that share a contradictory, topsy-turvy flavour. Hallam Foe puts a light spin on a dark story, while 2 Days in Paris lends uncommon weight to that most ephemeral of genres, the romantic comedy.

Both films benefit from stars who positively embrace their characters' more unsympathetic tendencies. Take Jamie Bell, who plays a teenage voyeur-cum-stalker nursing the mother of all Oedipus complexes in Hallam Foe. In any other film, Hallam would be the villain, or at least the villain's creepy accomplice, but Bell makes him positively happy-go-lucky. He lives in a tree-house adjacent to his father's country pile, and enjoys nothing better than dressing in animal skins and abseiling into the forest below to interrupt illicit trysts; as a teenage hobby, it has the edge over skateboarding. After getting in a hormonal tizzy over his apparently wicked stepmother (Claire Forlani), whom he believes had a hand in his mother's death, Hallam decamps to Edinburgh, where he becomes obsessed with Kate (Sophia Myles), a dead ringer for his dear old ma.

The writer-director David Mackenzie converts what could have been an angst-ridden plod into a footloose romp that recalls the anarchic spirit of Sixties gems such as Billy Liar and Morgan: a Suitable Case for Treatment. Just as Hallam transforms Edinburgh into his own personal playground, scampering nimbly across clock towers and rooftops, so Mackenzie opts for mischief and warped humour at every turn. In the process, he uncovers more emotional honesty than a hundred more earnest films could hope for.

What makes him a stimulating director is his ability to translate this honesty into visual terms. There is a handful of heavenly moments in Hallam Foe - the animated credit sequence, or Hallam and Kate's first date, which is an unimprovable vignette of romantic dysfunction. But the high point comes when Hallam charms his way into Kate's bed and glances up to see himself peering in through the window. The two Hallams exchange a bashful wave, which could mean either "good job" or "goodbye", and the film simply moves on.

That's when it hit me that Mackenzie has genius in his blood; the deftness with which he externalises Hallam's inner life is genuinely poetic. He hinted with the brilliant but morbid Young Adam that upbeat wasn't really in his repertoire, and there are still moments in Hallam Foe when he is staring into the abyss - but this time he's doing it through rose-tinted spectacles.

Julie Delpy, on the other hand, casts a fairly harsh eye over the world - or, to be more precise, France and America - in 2 Days in Paris. Delpy plays Marion, who takes her New Yorker boyfriend, Jack (Adam Goldberg), to meet her parents. Their Parisian jaunt is blighted by the emergence of her old flames, the ranting of xenophobic or antisocial taxi drivers, and mounting US-French tensions in her life that even the UN would be unable to quell.

Besides starring in the film, Delpy wrote, directed, edited, co-produced and scored it, and probably drew up astrological charts for every cast and crew member on her days off. But her most admirable achievement is keeping the film sane and funny even as it descends into the choppy waters of Jack's sexual insecurity. Delpy's script doesn't write off Jack as paranoid; his worst fears about Marion are shown to be true: flirting is her default setting. Women in films are still routinely punished for their desires, but Marion, like Kate in Hallam Foe, is allowed to be a fallible, messy and occasionally ribald human being without the picture passing judgement on her. Delpy is as spiky and intelligent a film-maker as she has been all these years as an actress. And she should be praised for exploiting Goldberg's neurotic mania. With his grubby tattoos and bushy beard, he's like Woody Allen trapped in the body of a merchant seaman.

Pick of the week

Lady Chatterley (18)
dir: Pascale Ferran
Gentle, lyrical, French take on D H Lawrence, with Marina Hands perfect in the lead.

The Bourne Ultimatum (12A)
dir: Paul Greengrass
What makes Matt Damon run? Find out in the third, breathless Bourne thriller.

Breach (12A)
dir: Billy Ray
Chris Cooper plays an FBI agent who sells US secrets to Russia.

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 03 September 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Guns: Where are they all coming from?